But it’s his fine cast, lead by the gutsy Hilary Swank, that really hold LaGravenese’s movie together. When we first meet Swank’s terminally perky character, decked out in twinset and pearls, we are as unimpressed as her students and her fellow faculty members. But, like her students, we are eventually won over by her sheer determination and good will. Only an actress as accomplished as Swank could take the audience on this sort of journey, and put LaGravenese’s sly writing to such good use.
Swank’s efforts are mirrored by a strong supporting cast. Imelda Staunton, in particular, puts far more range into her portrayal of the villain of the piece (a senior teacher opposed to Gruwell’s methods), than this small role would normally command. As for the students, they are more earnest than accomplished, but the passion and honesty they bring to their roles is refreshing nonetheless.
And yet, for all its strengths, Freedom Writers is still a deeply conventional and predictable film. No matter how passionate it feels about its story, and no matter how pure its intentions, we have still seen almost all of it before. LaGravenese is a sucker for sentimental stories and tends to sacrifice drama and brevity for cuddly emotionality. The film is also a little overlong for its story, and includes a largely unnecessary subplot with Gruwell’s long-suffering husband (a small part on which the marvellous Patrick Dempsey is wasted).
But these criticisms all seem petty in the face of the film’s heartfelt message. No matter how muddy the pitch they are playing on may be, LaGravenese and his cast have the untouchable air of true believers. And, in a year dominated by empty-headed garbage and cynical sequels, Freedom Writers may be one of our only chances to actually feel something about a film.
- Alistair Fairweather
Yes, we've heard everything Freedom Writers has to say two dozens times before. But that doesn't make the message, or the movie, any less potent.
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